HARTFORD — An ambitious to-do list awaits Connecticut lawmakers when they return Wednesday to the state Capitol for a roughly three-month election-year legislative session.
While changes to the second year of the two-year budget approved last year tops the list, lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont have already indicated a range of other issues they hope to tackle, ranging from legalized, recreational marijuana to reducing the cost of prescription medication and health care.
And since lawmakers didn’t wind up voting in a planned special legislative session on a transportation plan that includes bridge tolls for big trucks, the General Assembly is expected to resume that contentious debate as well when it convenes the regular session Feb. 5.
The legislature last year passed a two-year budget that mapped out a $22 billion tax-and-spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Lamont is expected to release his proposed changes on opening day of the new session, and projections show he should have a little more money to work with.
The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the state’s main spending account, the General Fund, will have a $183.8 million surplus next fiscal year, which is slightly higher than the budget $166.2 million surplus. Also, the state’s budget reserve account is projected to grow to $3 billion by fiscal year 2021, a record high.
But that doesn’t mean Connecticut’s financial challenges are over.
This year’s general fund has a nearly $30 million projected deficit, due mostly to tax refunds and state agency shortfalls. The Office of Fiscal Analysis is also projecting general fund deficits in future fiscal years: $757 million in fiscal year 2022, $1.2 billion in 2023 and $917 million in 2024.
Expect yet another debate over whether Connecticut should join a growing number of states in legalizing and taxing recreational cannabis for adults.
Last year’s concerted legalization effort, which included a package of bills, ultimately fizzled. Senate Democrats have since announced plans to resurrect the effort, arguing Connecticut needs to catch up to its neighbors.
“We know there are very large numbers of Connecticut residents already traveling regularly to Massachusetts to buy this product and bring it home with them. New York is considering it this year. Other states around us have,” said Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “I don’t think we want to put our heads in the sand.”
Lamont also supports legalization but said he wants to work with the governors of New York and Rhode Island.
“Whatever we end up doing, this year or next year, whatever, we want to do on a regional basis with the same standards, similar regulations,” he said.
But Republican Rep. Vincent Candelora, of North Branford, questions whether such a bill will become law in Connecticut.
“We heard last year this is going to happen. Legalization is going to occur. And it didn’t. Why? Because when people learn about the subject matter, it’s a lot tougher to vote for it,” he said.
In January, a task force created by the General Assembly to examine statutes of limitations in Connecticut and in other states recommended lawmakers eliminate the statute of limitations for civil sexual assault, abuse and exploitation cases.
If such a move becomes law this year, proponents said, Connecticut would become the second state to take such a step. Twelve states made some changes to their statute of limitations laws in 2019.
“The difference this bill will make if it is signed into law will be huge,’’ said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who led the task force. “It will recognize the years of injustice suffered by many sexual abuse victims in Connecticut and allow them to seek justice and truly begin their own healing process.”
Health care costs
Both Democratic and Republican legislators have said they hope to take action to lower the cost of health care, include prescription drugs.
State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the top-ranking GOP senator on the legislature’s Insurance Committee, said he expects there will be bipartisan support this session for proposals such as a state-funded reinsurance program and benchmarking health care costs to combat growth.
But there could be partisan disagreement over other ideas, including a plan to revisit legislation creating a public health insurance option for individuals and small businesses in Connecticut that proponents predict would cost 20% less than current average market premium costs. Kelly said he fears it could harm the state’s insurance industry.
Senate Democrats also plan to unveil legislation that attempts to address the high cost of insulin. They are calling for a $100 a month cap on how much patients pay out-of-pocket for the life-saving medication.